There are three national parks in the East Coast mid-Atlantic region: Shenandoah National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the newly created New River Gorge National Park.

It’s a half-day drive from these mountain showstoppers to a slew of federal and state recreation areas where adventurous travellers can hike, bike, paddle and camp, or simply embrace the great outdoors.

Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway are two national scenic byways running along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the East. Skyline Drive bisects Shenandoah National Park in Virginia then drops out of the park to connect with the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway. The Parkway runs south to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. The New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia offers some of the best whitewater rafting east of the Mississippi River.

Beaches are the draw along the Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina coasts. One of the prettiest coastal drives is Hwy 12 through the Outer Banks. This narrow road runs alongside sea oats and sand dunes across a string of barrier islands, linking beaches, lighthouses and historic sites. Outdoor activities make the most of the wind and the water: surfing, kiteboarding, windsurfing, and hang gliding. There’s plenty of fishing and camping too.

USA Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway connecting Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks

Skyline Drive & Blue Ridge Parkway

Approx distance: 500 miles

Duration: Four to five days

Suggested route: Washington DC, Shenandoah National Park, Natural Bridge State Park, Peaks of Otter, McAfee Knob & Appalachian Trail, Roanoke

Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway ribbon along the crest of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, curving past some of the finest viewpoints and trails in the Southern Appalachians. Inviting small towns and striking geologic formations dot the surrounding mountain foothills.

Completed in 1939, Skyline Drive was designed with road trips in mind. Trailheads and overlooks border the roadside, and stone mile-markers confirm your exact location. The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway links Shenandoah National Park with the eastern entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. There is no admission fee, and there are no stop lights along the route.

Read more: Skyline Drive & Blue Ridge Parkway road trip

View from Mount Mitchell North Carolina USA

The view from Mount Mitchell, North Carolina

Western North Carolina

Approx. distance: 600 miles

Duration: Four days

Suggested route: Charlotte, Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, Grandfather Mountain, Linville Falls, Mount Mitchell State Park, Nantahala Outdoor Center & Appalachian Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Charlotte.

The Blue Ridge Parkway lets loose in the rugged mountains of the North Carolina high country, swooping above the clouds, shooting through tunnels and nudging against the slopes of ancient mountains. Great Smoky Mountains National Park awaits at the end of the drive.

Read more: Western North Carolina road trip

Autumn sunset view from Little Stony Man Cliffs along the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park Virginia USA

The view from Little Stony Man Cliffs on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park

West Virginia To Shenandoah National Park

Approx. distance: 650 miles

Duration: one week

Suggested route: Charleston, Hawks Nest State Park, New River Gorge National Park, Seneca Rocks & Monongahela National Forest, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Berkeley Springs State Park, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Shenandoah National Park, Washington, DC.

This road trip starts in the mountains of West Virginia, where wild rapids, climber-ready sandstone and a high-elevation wilderness draw active travellers. Afterwards, road trippers can soothe sore muscles in historic hot springs then dig into America’s turbulent past in Harpers Ferry. The adventure concludes in Virginia with a mountain-top drive.

Read more: West Virginia To Shenandoah National Park road trip

Foothills Parkway northern Great Smoky Mountains tennessee usa

Foothills Parkway in the Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains

Approx. distance: 450 miles

Duration: Six days

Suggested route: Knoxville, Urban Wilderness, Gatlinburg, Cades Cove, Clingman's Dome, Ocoee Scenic Byway, Lookout Mountain, Knoxville.

Gorgeous scenery and outdoor adventure join forces on this Great Smokies loop, which swings past urban parks, waterfall trails and wildlife playgrounds.

Read more: Great Smoky Mountains road trip

Herbert C Bonner Bridge between Bodie Island and Pea Island Outer Banks North Carolina NC USA

Herbert C Bonner Bridge connecting North Carolina's Outer Banks

North Carolina’s Outer Banks

Approx. distance: 425 miles

Duration: Three to four days

Suggested route: Norfolk, Corolla, Wright Brothers National Memorial, Jockey’s Ridge State Park, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Hatteras Island, Ocracoke Island, Norfolk

This drive rolls through federal and state parks on the windswept Outer Banks (OBX), a scrappy strand of barrier islands between the Atlantic Ocean and mainland North Carolina. Wild horses, a shifting sand dune, a mysterious lost colony and coastal watersports keep the mood untamed.

Read more: North Carolina’s Outer Banks road trip

About the author

The Best East Coast USA Road Trips

Amy Balfour

Amy has authored or co-authored 26 books on the USA for Lonely Planet. Her articles and essays have appeared in Backpacker, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Houston Chronicle, Redbook, Southern Living, Women’s Health, Vegetarian Times, the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

Why Horizon Guides?

Impartial guidebooks

Impartial travel guides

Our guides are written by the leading experts in their destinations. We never take payment for positive coverage so you can count on us for impartial travel advice.

Expert itineraries

Expert itineraries

Suggested itineraries and routes to help you scratch beneath the surface, avoid the tourist traps, and plan an authentic, responsible and enjoyable journey.

Specialist advice

Specialist advice

Get friendly, expert travel advice and custom itineraries from some of the world's best tour operators, with no spam, pressure or commitment to book.